On 'In The Pines'

Catherine Wagner

Notley’s poems since the 1990s, especially Descent of Alette (1996), Disobedience (2001), Alma, or the Dead Women (2006) and In the Pines (2007) conjure not only daily life but the structural and symbolic, the underhere and undernow, in an evolving exploration of form. Notley is a mystic—she tries to tell truths—but she is not a fundamentalist; her poems mean as poems do, complexly and through form. The poems’ formal aspects serve to frame and complicate the poems’ investment in personal statement: they keep us alert to artifice, so that we approach the poem’s urgent claims cautiously, just as the speaker(s) of the poem do. Her writing is staunchly ethical both in its effort to tell the truth, to question it, and to insist that we do the same; the poem, in its interaction with us, models an ethic.

Notley’s use of quotation marks in Descent of Alette (1996) implied that her epic was intended to be understood, metaphorically, at least, as spoken aloud. The quotation marks score Alette with caesuras; they also divide the poem and its speaker from themselves, leaving spaces in which, perhaps, others might speak. In contrast, the long title poem of In the Pines—though it consists mainly of dialogue and song—contains no quotation marks. Questions and responses at times follow upon one another without line breaks, which means that the absence of quotation marks makes for significant sliding between pronouns and between passages. Multiple speakers might be present in the poem; or, just as plausibly, one character might be speaking throughout, maintaining an internal dialogue, sometimes quoting. Either way, the poem is forested with voices.

Here is an excerpt from the seventh section of the title poem from In the Pines:

                I’m the new species, the girl says.
                I want to punish you, you say.

                Your parents don’t like me, because I am poor. Come sit down beside me. That’s all you ever have to do.
                The needles can be made beautiful, if the song so chooses.
                There is no choice. I’m afraid they are beautiful . . .
                How am I changing the writing? Don’t show, don’t show your change. (29–30)

We can’t settle on either a singular or a multiple origin for these voices, which means the conversation or argument that the poem presents is peculiarly flexible and generative. When a position is taken in one of these dialogues, it projects a space out of which other positions can emerge in response. “You,” “She,” “I,” and “He” become collapsible structures or strictures that acknowledge and revise the architectures that we speak in and from. The atomized world of the poem can, through these untethered dialogues, be stretched into relation, into opposition, so that it can argue with itself and with us. “Voice” and “self” are not limiting categories: when the poem takes a position, it implicitly announces it to be both made and malleable.

Notley’s writing takes a position in mid-air in the poem and speaks from it, and then, in responding, occupies another position. The flight between positions is silent and invisible and in back of time. Time and the world are all around a Notley poem. The poem holds and battles them by taking positions. The taking of a position implies otherness, and relation, and family, and society, and suddenly the whole world roars at the doorstep of the poem.

Constellation: Alice Notley
[#] Birkbeck Centre for Poetics
[#] Openned Video Constellation of Readings
[#] Return to “Intercapillary Space” Notley Contents page

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